By: Bob George
Flagstaff, Arizona is about 6,000 feet above sea level. The base of Vail Mountain in Colorado is about 2,000 feet higher.
In both communities, you can sit in someone’s family room or go out for a relaxing dinner and every two minutes or so, you will surprisingly find yourself needing to catch your breath. And this is just sitting around and talking. When people talk about the thin air of Denver, which really is 5,280 feet above sea level at one of the steps of the state capital, it’s absolutely real and has an effect on people who don’t live there or spend an extended amount of time there.
The Patriots will be here in one week to play the Denver Broncos for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII. Thanks to that regrettable 24-20 loss at Miami on Week 15, the Patriots have to come here to Denver instead of vice versa. The Patriots come to a venue they rarely do well in, in a city where they have never won a playoff game, against a quarterback who isn’t as baffled with Bill Belichick as he was early in his Indianapolis career.
Denver is hosting this game because Peyton Manning finally, for at least one game, overcame his playoff yips. Against a San Diego Charger team that had no right to be in the playoff tournament in the first place, Manning had a relatively easy time with a Charger team that looked nothing like the 27-20 victors in December at Sports Authority Field. Somehow, San Diego managed to overcome a Cincinnati team who managed to look worse in a playoff game than they did last weekend, but Denver held firm and vanquished the Chargers, 24-17, holding off a late Charger rally. The Broncos avenged not only their December loss, but also their January loss to Baltimore in the Divisional Round following last season.
So, if the Patriot season comes to an end next week in the Mile High City, the Patriots can look back at that late season loss at Miami and shake their heads. Tom Brady was visibly upset and very curt at his post game press conference, and with good reason. San Diego had given the Patriots an early Christmas present by defeating Denver, thus putting the Patriots in the drivers’ seat for the top AFC playoff seed thanks to New England’s miracle come from behind win against Denver at Gillette Stadium. But the Patriots played one of their worst games of the season, fell behind again, and failed to catch Miami at the final gun.
The Patriots actually do have a chance to win this game. The Patriots are 2-0 against Manning since his exodus to Denver, but both wins were in Foxborough. This is the first time the Patriots have faced Manning as a Bronco in Denver. The last time the Patriots came here, in 2011, they did win, 41-23, but Tim Tebow was the starting Bronco quarterback.
Previously, the Patriots are 0-2 in the postseason in this city. In 1986, the defending AFC Champion Patriots came to Mile High Stadium and saw their conference title defense come to an end, 22-17. Then in 2005, the two-time Super Bowl champion Patriots came to what was then Invesco Field at Mile High, and Brady suffered his first career playoff loss, 27-13. That was the game where Kevin Faulk lost a fumble which officially ended the invincibility of the Patriots at the time, and where Champ Bailey returned a Brady pick 100 yards but was cut down at the one-yard line by Benjamin Watson. The Broncos won the game, but all Patriot Nation remembers is that great play by Watson which only forestalled a Bronco touchdown by one play.
The Patriots need to play a perfect game, and hope that Manning plays like he usually does in the playoffs. The Patriots have several things going for them, and can win the game if certain things break their way. But the Patriots cannot play like they did against Miami, and they certainly cannot play like their first game with Denver at Foxborough, spotting the Broncos a 24-0 first half lead.
The first thing the Patriots have is their usual decided edge at head coach. Belichick should outcoach John Fox with ease. Fox was Carolina’s head coach for Super Bowl XXXVIII, but the Panthers gave the Patriots a good game back then. Still, Belichick can come up with lots of twists and turns for Fox and Manning to deal with better than Fox can for Brady and Belichick.
Then there’s Manning’s adverse history in the playoffs. Manning has only one playoff win over the Patriots, that being the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Brady has beaten Manning in the playoffs twice, both times in Foxborough, and both times winning the Super Bowl thereafter. Manning has a penchant for being pressed into making bad decisions under pressure, is susceptible to bad weather, and might even have confidence issues the closer he gets to a Super Bowl.
Another area the Patriots will find to their liking is that the Bronco defense is not real good, and they are also without their All-Pro linebacker Von Miller. If the Patriots can avoid turnovers of any kind, the Patriots can use their new-found running attack to help set up the passing game. Unlike San Diego, the Patriots will do a better job of setting up the pass with the run. Whomever is healthy for the Patriots in the receiving corps, they will all be better served if LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen can gash the Bronco front seven and open up passing lanes for Brady.
Back we go to the confidence factor. There will be much more pressure on Manning to win than Brady. Brady has proven to be a much better playoff commodity than Manning, no matter how many experts still try and sing the praises of Manning. Manning is more than capable of getting his team to the Super Bowl, but actually doing it is not ever easy for him. Despite his recent run of playoff maladies in his own right, and despite his checkered history in Denver, Brady might be the more relaxed quarterback in this game. The game may come down to which team commits the fewest turnovers, and Manning is always one pick or two away from still another ignominious playoff defeat.
Finally, there’s the altitude. While this always favors Denver, the Patriots can help themselves with a little logistical maneuvering. If the Patriots take a little extra time to get used to the altitude of Denver, it might help the Patriots avoid getting winded on Sunday. If Belichick and those in the Patriot front office who deal with logistics could pull it off, the Patriots ought to head out to Denver on Wednesday. That would involve hotel and practice field adjustments, but if the Patriots could move back their travel day, it would help them immeasurably. For a regular season game, this might not be feasible, but since this is the AFC Championship Game, it is something the Patriots should investigate.
In any case, Denver will be favored to win this game. The Patriots would be favored if this game were in Foxborough. But it’s in Denver, there is nothing the Patriots can do about it. San Diego failed to bring the AFC Championship Game to Foxborough for a third straight season. The Patriots should have taken care of business in Miami. Now they have to do something they have never done before, and that is to win a postseason game in Denver.
Belichick has been extolled as being in the midst of his finest coaching season ever. Let’s hope that we still haven’t seen the best of Bill yet.